Nazi-looted Van Gogh painting could fetch $30 million

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written by Megan C. Hills, Granthshala

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Seen in public for more than a century, a vibrant Vincent van Gogh painting that was once confiscated by the Nazis is going up for auction.

Crop scene watercolor, title “heaps of wheat(“Pack of Wheat”), depicts women working in the fields in Arles, France, and is expected to sell for up to $30 million.

Van Gogh painted the scene in 1888 after returning to the French countryside amid a period of ill health. While in Arles, he became enamored of the pastoral lifestyle surrounding him, and “Mules de Ble” was one of several harvest-themed works created during this period.

The auction house behind the sale, Christie’s, said in its listing that the watercolors reflected Van Gogh’s “obsession with Japonism”, which saw him adopt a more graphic style, similar to Japanese woodcuts.

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Despite the serene scene depicted, the painting has a troubled history. It initially belonged to van Gogh’s brother, Theo, and later changed hands in 1913 before being bought by Max Mierovsky, a Jewish industrialist. Facing anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, Mirowski was forced to flee, and he handed the painting over to a German. Art dealership in Paris according to Christie’s.

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The watercolor came into the possession of Miriam Caroline Alexandrine de Rothschild, who herself fled to Switzerland after the outbreak of World War II. During the French occupation, the Nazis plundered de Rothschild’s collection, taking the “Mules de Ble” along with other pieces.

In 1941, the painting was transferred to the Jeu de Palm, a museum used to store and display artifacts that were “degenerated” or otherwise confiscated by the Nazis. According to Christie’s, the “Mules de Ble” was then moved to the Schloss Kogel palace in Austria, where it entered an unnamed private collection.

While de Rothschild attempted to retrieve his lost painting after the fall of the Nazi regime, van Gogh removed it. In 1978, it was acquired by the Wildenstein & Company Gallery in New York, where it was purchased by the late art collector Edward Lochridge Cox, a Texan oil magnate with a penchant for Impressionism. The watercolor is part of the sale of Christie’s own collection, which includes paintings by other famous artists including Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet.

Van Gogh painted this scene in 1888 after retreating to the French countryside. Credit: Christie’s Images Ltd 2021

After Cox’s death, an ownership dispute arose between Cox’s estate and the heirs of both Mirowski and de Rothschild. Christie’s notes in its catalog that the parties have since reached a “settlement agreement,” but declined to comment further on the matter.

The painting was last seen in public in 1905, when it was exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as part of a larger Van Gogh.

Artifacts looted by the Nazis have been at the center of several ownership disputes in recent years. Among them are “Winter” by Impressionist Gary Melchers, who was seized by the Nazis from a Jewish family and recently returned to his descendants, and Camille Pissarro, a man at the center of a longstanding disagreement between the University of Oklahoma and the successor. The picture was French Jewish Family.


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